Big-name Dallas gyms will drop mask requirements, open occupancy to 100%

Diana J. Smith

Major fitness clubs Gold’s Gym and Life Time will remove occupancy limits and no longer require masks at Texas locations beginning Wednesday.

Minnesota-based Life Time, a health club chain with 10 North Texas locations, including Addison and Highland Park, notified members by email that masks would no longer be required at its clubs.

“Our clubs are adjusting our protocols throughout our 26 Texas clubs, … including no mandatory masks or social distancing,” Life Time spokesman Blake Bellucci said in a statement. “[Employees] will continue to wear masks at all times and have regular screenings and temperature checks.”

Life Time founder and CEO Bahram Akradi released a video in November that admonished Minnesota for mandating a shutdown of health and fitness clubs. He said the industry was not the problem, but “the solution to maintaining public health” was to address health conditions like obesity.

“The health club industry has taken this pandemic very seriously by self-imposing public safety and health measures,” Akradi said at the time. “And [Life Time has] been willing to add even more measures to help if it’s necessary.”

Dallas-based Gold’s Gym, which was purchased out of bankruptcy last year by a German firm, is also lifting its requirements. Gold’s will still require masks for its employees but is opening up to 100% capacity and reintroducing amenities like saunas.

“Beginning Wednesday, members will no longer be required to wear masks, though we strongly encourage everyone to continue to follow all recommendations from public health officials — including wearing a mask and social distancing — to protect yourself and others while in the gym,” the company said in the email.

Gold’s referred The Dallas Morning News to an FAQ on its web site that said the company follows state and local mandates and “will continue to do so.” Gold’s operates more than 60 company-owned gyms, including one in Richardson and Waxahachie.

24 Hour Fitness, which has two locations in Dallas, said it will create masked and mask-free zones at its Texas locations.

North Texas gyms have been working on their reopening plans since Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate and removed occupancy limits. His new order takes effect Wednesday.

Some gyms told members to continue bringing a mask for their workouts, including the Dallas YMCA.

“After speaking with leaders of the two largest hospital systems in our area and reviewing information they provided regarding disease tracking, at this time we will continue on our current path and require all employees and guests working and visiting our facilities to wear a mask or face covering in order to keep our members and staff as safe as possible,” YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas CEO Curt Hazelbaker said in a statement. It operates 19 Dallas branches and camps.

The New York Times — which has been tracking case data and worked with specialists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to measure risk level — still labels the infection rate in Dallas County as “extremely high risk.”

And just last week, Dallas County’s top public health official voiced his belief that it’s too soon to stop wearing masks in public spaces.

“It’s still too early. We’d all love to get back to normal. [But] it’s not the time to relax,” Dallas County public health director Dr. Philip Huang told Dallas commissioners.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear a mask, stay distant and only participate in small group exercise. A recently published CDC investigation of a COVID-19 outbreak at a Chicago gym showed “the increased respiratory exertion that occurs in the enclosed spaces of indoor exercise facilities facilitates transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”

In lieu of requirements from state leaders, Richardson resident Kristina Bauer said she hopes those attending gyms draw on a lesson with religious origins that’s often taught in grade school: the Golden Rule, treating others the way you wish to be treated.

“Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. What you do impacts everyone around you,” Bauer said.

She and other members of her family are immunocompromised as a result of Lyme disease. Physical fitness helps combat the disease, but Bauer and her family are also more susceptible to infection.

Bauer owned and operated a yoga studio and wellness center for 14 years as she battled the lasting effects of Lyme disease. She took her fitness instruction virtually before the pandemic, as her family’s unpredictable health concerns made it difficult to keep up with real estate brokers who wanted her to sign multi-year commitments in order to keep her studio space.

The communal relationships her physical studio provided can’t be matched, she said. But she also fears what COVID-19 outbreaks could mean to families like her own with conditions that went undiagnosed for years.

“I don’t go around bleeding on everybody with open wounds, giving them Lyme. It’s the same thing,” she said.

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